ESL Games and Activities

A little off the typical subject for this blog, but I wanted to take a few minutes to talk about actually teaching ESL.  Teaching English is a great way to live in a new country, and experience a new culture.

Teaching can be full of challenges.  I have been very lucky this year, finding a school that I like, and a boss that has a similar philosophy to mine.  It makes it very easy to plan lessons.  One of the most important things I do is play games and make activities for my students.

For a game to work in my classroom it has to follow two general rules:

  1. There has to be a little bit of luck involved.  No class has students that are all at the exact same level.  So, I refuse to play any game that the smartest kid will win every time.  All games that I play have some bit of luck, chance, or strategy.  Similarly, I like to put kids in groups if possible.  Especially in Korea, I feel like group work is a challenge in itself for students.
  2. The games that I play are usually not focused on perfecting grammar or pronunciation.  For my classes, games are a way to have a good time, in a stress free environment.  It is a time students can try things without fear of being incorrect.

Ok, here are some games that I play a lot:


A delightfully easy game, that is especially popular with younger elementary students.  Every one of my classes premiddle school loves this game.  And my middle schoolers are 50/50.  This game is best with 6+ students.

Concentration uses a 4 beat rhythm (slap, clap, snap, snap) and has a tune to sing at the beginning:


Concentration has begun

Keep the rhythm

Don’t stop

Beat wise it’s:

con*cen*tra*tion/Concen*tration*has*begun/keep*the*rhy*thm/(pause) (pause) don’t*stop

The first beat being a slap on the table or lap, second a clap, third a snap with the right hand, and fourth a snap with the left hand.

The easiest way to play is with the students names.  So after the song, there would be a slap clap and then the first person says their name on the first snap, and another student’s name on the second snap, then, slap clap- the second person carries on choosing another student.  Once they understand the game pretty well, and do well with names, you can move on to any vocabulary set that you’re studying.

3 rules:

  1. If a student pauses or hesitates or breaks the rhythm of the game, they are out.
  2. If a student says the name of a student that is already out, they are out.
  3. If a student says the name of the student that said their name, they are out. (meaning it can’t so Suzy-Jerry, Jerry-Suzy)

Steal Swap Bust

This game is great for groups or single students.  You need 3-4 students or groups.


A board, markers/chalk, paper, small box or container.

Cut the paper into small slips.  On each slip write a number of points (5, 10, 15, 20, 25) or the words Steal Swap or Bust.  I usually make 3 or 4 each of the steal swap and bust pieces, and 2 or 3 of all the points.  Fold the papers and put them into the container.  Set up the board with the team’s/student’s names:


Each team or student gets asked a question.  If they answer correctly, they pick a slip of paper.  If it says “Steal” they steal all the points from the team of their choice.  If it says “Swap” they have to swap points with another team.  If it says “Bust” their point total goes down to zero.  If they choose a slip with points, they get added to their score. I usually start each team with 50 points.

Connect Four

Materials: Board, markers/chalk

This game needs two teams.  You can play it with three, but it is much more difficult to get a winner.  Two.

Draw a grid covering the entire board.  Along the top, write random letters from the alphabet, and along the left side, number the rows. wpid-20150724_165949.jpg

Teams take turns selecting a square (A1, N4, etc.) and they have to say a word that starts with that letter.  For older students, I make them use only words with 5+ letters.  To make it more interesting, give each team a time limit.  The first team that gets 4 in a row (horizontal, vertical, or diagonal) wins.  OR, you can play to see which team gets the most “Bingos” in the time you have available.  I use either different colored board markers, or draw shapes in their boxes (usually stars vs. circles)

Board Scramble

This takes a few minutes to set up, but doesn’t require any materials other than the board and markers/chalk.  I use this with my phonics classes quite a bit, but also with more advanced students.

Basically, just make an alphabet/vocabulary word soup on the board.  I like to use different colors, and intentionally put words that are misspelled hidden in there as well.


This works with up to three students/groups.  Have the students stand behind a line on the floor (real or imaginary) and then call out a word.  First student that finds the word on the board and slaps it, wins the point.  CAUTION: this can get really competitive, so if your students are more aggressive, you can do the same thing on a piece of paper, and copy it for all the students- and play the same way at their desks.  Most points at the end of the game wins!

Baseball Game

To me this is a slightly more interesting version of hangman.  You can use 3 or 4 letter words (4 letters is much harder, for you and the students.)  Draw three (or four) blank spaces in the upper left hand corner of the board.  Like hangman, students take turns guessing, but this time they are guessing words, not letters.  If they guess a word that has a letter that is correct, and in the right position- it’s a strike.  If a letter is correct but in the wrong position in the word… it’s a ball.


The students continue guessing, until they figure out the correct word.  Depending on how difficult the word is- it can take a very long time.  (The word in the game below was VERY)



Kaboom is played by writing questions on slips of paper.  I usually try to write about 20 questions.  On 5 or so slips of paper just write KABOOM!!! The students pick questions one by one.  If they answer the question correctly, they keep the paper.  If they can’t answer it, it goes back into the container.  If they pull a slip that says KABOOM!!! they have to put all their slips of paper back into the container.

Hot Seat

Put on chair up against the board, facing the rest of the students.  Write a word on the board behind the student, making sure they do not see it.  The rest of the class has to give the student clues to help them guess the word.  You can also play this with teams, with two chairs at the board.  First one to guess the word wins a point for their team.

Change Chairs

This is a great game for learning the conditional ‘if’ and getting your students up and moving in class.  Move the desks as out of the way as possible, and put the students chairs in a circle.  Make sure there is one less chair than the number of students.  The student with no chair, stands in the middle and says “Change chairs if…” and makes something up.  For example, “Change chairs if you have glasses.” or “Change chairs if you are wearing sandals” Any student that has whatever they say must get up and change chairs with another student.  The person in the middle tries to steal a chair.  Whoever is left without a chair is then in the middle to make the next “change chairs.”  This game gets the same caution.  Because the students are at a higher level, they are usually a little less likely to hurt each other, but in their enthusiasm, chairs can tip, and students can fall over.  I only play this game with between 5 and 6 students.  Sometimes 7 or 8 if I think they can do it without hurting each other.

Those are probably the 8 games I play most frequently, other than flash card games or board games that I make.  Making board games and flash cards are my bread and butter though.  A little bit of card stock goes a long way in my classroom.

Dr. Fish, Korea

So, I had been trying to talk myself into going to get my feet gnawed on by tiny fish for a long time.  I was nervous about it for several reasons.  I really didn’t want to go alone, but most of my friends were not interested in having their feet chewed.  So I finally worked up the courage to go alone, and headed up to Gangnam, following directions I had found on the internet.  Jokes on me, that cafe was closed.  I took that to mean the universe was telling me not to go.

But I still wanted to.  While in Insadong for the Lotus Lantern Festival  we stood near a sign for Dr. Fish.  It’s a bit further than Gangnam, but definitely worth it.  Insadong is a great place to eat and shop- tons of restaurants, cafes, and independent craft shops.

Finally, four months later, I was talking to a friend about it, and she was also interested in going.  That weekend we headed up to Seoul.  We decided to start with the Dr. Fish, so we headed straight there.  Thankfully, it was very easy to find, even though it had been four months since I saw the sign.


The Foot Shop is a national chain of pedicure/foot massage places.  Not all of them have Dr. Fish, but luckily this one did.  For the low cost of just 9,000Won you could have fish nibble off your dead skin.

Now.  I said I was nervous for multiple reasons.  Really only two.

1) Because the fish are alive, the water can’t really be sanitized.  Which, I believe, is why it isn’t popular (or done at all?) in America.  I’m not exactly sure about this.  But, as a child that used to swim in a river, I figured my feet would be alright.

2) My feet are pretty ticklish, and I was very scared I would kick a fish, and kill it.  This was the biggest fear I had going into the shop.  I just didn’t want to kick a fish and then have it die.  Luckily, upon entering, the whole place was very calming.


Everything was very straight forward- we paid, we were told to take off our shoes, and shown a little sink to wash our feet and then she gestured to the fishy pool.  They weren’t the smallest fish.  I had envisioned them as being smaller.  They were intimidating, swimming around in the pool as we walked over.


In we went.


Pretty soon I had a ton of little fish nibbling on my feet.  It did indeed feel bizarre.  But not what I thought it would.  It felt more like my feet were vibrating than ticklish/toothy.  And I couldn’t tell if there was a particularly aggressive fish on the bottom of my foot, or if the bottom of the foot was just a little more sensitive than the rest.  But occasionally, I could feel an extra strong nibble.  More like a bite.


All in all, it was really fun.  And my feet felt amazing afterwards.  They honestly felt a little raw and tender.  It was wonderful.

After the fish feeding, we went to feed ourselves, and then to O’sulloc Tea Cafe, which serves delicious, mostly green, tea from Jeju Island.  I’m not a fan of green tea, so I wasn’t expecting to love the place.  But if that wasn’t the best tea I’ve ever had in my life, I don’t know what was.


(Iced red papaya black tea- If you were wondering.)  And my friend had the most beautiful tangerine green tea latte.


What a great day!

If you’re interested in going to The Foot Shop in Insadong, it is in a small alley across the main shopping street from Starbucks.  The sign I have at the beginning of this post is on the main shopping street.  Very easy to find.